Improving the Interstitial Space – Lacan and Democracy

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“Structures do not take to the streets.” Lacan on May 68′

At the core of the psychoanalytic political project (Badiou, Zizek, Laclau, etc.) is the idea of antagonism. Antagonism is the problem of exclusion in democratic formations, or the tendency for an excluded class, race, religion, etc. to be othered to the point of it being an almost embedded and structural necessity to the very system of a democratic order. This form of exclusion as a structural imperative is what simultaneously allows for democracy to flourish, and for democracy itself to not truly exist, except merely as a personification.

Democracy is essential because it offers a platform and microphone for the voiceless, for the nameless, to speak. While simultaneously replicating the deadlock of subjectivity itself writ large, democracy – as a political concept – is open to a number of theoretical interventions from a Lacanian perspective. One of the central questions at the core of the Lacanian left is to what extent should democracy be salvaged, or more precisely, in what way should the core ideological fantasy for which the system is sustained be revealed?

The Lacanian critique of democracy starts with this disavowed core of subjectivity itself. Because a fundamental disconnect between who we think we are and what we truly seek to be, the subject, like democracy, is infinite. Hobbes was aware of this when he noted that there is no ‘original good,’ because of infinity.

Fantasy and the Social Order

For a society to be Lacanian it has to examine what is at the heart of its exclusive tendency. And because the democratic project will always only circle around the empty center of democracy, there are only personifications of democracy.

In terms of political analysis: it is important to understand that fantasy is politically relevant because it is initially an attempt to cover over the lack of the other and as such it functions in the social world. Even in Freud, fantasy involves the subjective registration of normative symbolic structures.

At what point does fantasy fill in the liberal idea of pure rationality? Fantasy belongs, according to Zizek to the objectively subjective, it is related to our sense of reality. What is the political promise of the fantasmatic? Here we have a utopian structure of human fantasy which when projected onto the social is without this projection of the lost world, without it no desire for political identification would arise. Even though there is no plausible embodiment of a pre-symbolic real.

The reason that we persist in our failed attempts to symbolize is because every attempt is articulated around a fantasy frame based on a promise of encountering jouissance. Fantasy creates this illusion by offering us the objet petit a as embodying this lost fullness. Fantasy cannot fulfill desire, but can only sustain it, revealing human experience as a dialectics of impossibility. If every attempt to create the loss and missing object out of fantasy is true, is Lacanian psychoanalysis another attempt to build a social constructivism? In the social constructionist view, reality is always the result of discourse and that is where meaning is generated. Signification never refers to the real per se but always to another signification.

Since reality always has to be constructed as a harmonious whole, the more beatific a social reality is, the more that reality depends upon a fantasy/symptom axis that functions like a dialectic. The symptom is a returning jouissance – the real kernel of enjoyment. It never stops imposing itself on us. If fantasy is the support that we give to reality, then fantasy gives discourse its consistency because it opposes the symptom. Fantasy institutes a harmony into the system that depends on a negation of the generalized lack that crosses the field of the social.

When this dependence on fantasy is revealed, the work of democracy can authentically begin. In Lacan, reality is that which destroys reality; it is that which shows reality to be lacking. It is thus revealed in the failure of symbolization itself. Lacanian social constructionism can only make sense in relation to a real that is its consequences are felt within the field of representation. It is therefore possible to identify two different natures in Lacan – nature as reality, as social construction and nature as real, as that which is always located outside the field of social construction.

The Subject of Democracy/Jouissance

It is not our universality of rights that protects us but our universality that demands protections. The political exists within the nature of the universal, but as its protection from sovereignty. The subject is equivalent with the totality, and it is the subject that introduces a split into the social world, as well as the individual.

What remains of philosophical interest is the lack in the other – the split in the objective side of experience. If I (as a subject in a democratic order) seek to identify with something, it is because I have a lack of my attempts to identify with a social totality, but furthermore, my attempts to identify with a full other have also been made impossible. The objective other is always lacking. The lack is a lack of jouissance. Because the Lacanian subject is deprived of that which it believes to be the most intimate part of himself, which happens in the realm of the symbolic. Desire is always structured around this missing jouissance, around an impossible prohibition of the Law. The Law creates a desire to recapture the impossible jouissance. Desire is always presented as a will to jouissance. Lack introduces the idea of fullness and integration with the lost object, and not visa versa. It is through an act of exclusion that we attribute to what was excluded. Lack is introduced at the intersection of the real and the symbolic, and as such it emerges through the symbolization of the real.

Desire is elusive precisely because it is always elsewhere. What stimulates our desire for new is what is called fantasy. Fantasy is a structure that stimulates, and promises to cover over the lack in the other created by the loss of jouissance. Since this is also an effect of castration, it is also a defense against castration. Fantasy serves as a support that fills in the void for the lack in the other of the symbolic. The illusory nature of fantasy serves as a support for the desire to identify.

The role of the object in sustaining desire – as the object appears as the remainder of the most mythological subject of jouissance that promises to provide what the other lacks and thus unify us as subjects. The subject is thus caused by this mythological object. The mythological subject, or that which emerges before the imposition of enjoyment is what Lacan calls the subject of jouissance.

Because fantasy, “makes bearable the lack in the other,” by promising an active fullness, fantasy positivize’s lack (Lacanian Left, Pg. 47). It introduces an imaginary promise as an answer to the anomaly emerging at the intersection of the symbolic and the persisting real. Thence, the object of fantasy has a twofold status: it is the object that is lacking in the subject, and it is the object that fills the lack (Soler, 1995: Pg. 267).

Encircling the Political: Or the Inexistence of the “Political”

Political reality is first constituted at the symbolic level and is supported by fantasy, and as such, the political contains the form of the real. Culture, religion, and science, should all be considered in relationship to the failure of the symbolic to the real. As Yannis Stavrakakis notes, “we can never speak of the political precisely because there is subversion and dislocation of the social” (Lacanian Left, Pg. 75). The political is located in the interstice between one socio-political identification and the creation of the desire for a new one.

In this interstitial space, or the point de caption, a specific signifier is called to incarnate a function beyond its concreteness; it is emptied from its particular signification in order to represent fullness in general. The best example is how “the nation” or “communism” function, as pure negativity. They represent what has to be excluded or negated. Reagan’s characterization of the “evil empire” is a case in point. It can function only within a certain fantasmatic frame. It functions as an object petit a, which is similar to how political discourse is constructed around these empty signifiers that only are defined by their negative most points of exclusion.

The Two Stages of Appraising and Improving Democracy

There are two stages of the psychoanalytic process, and thus of assessing the democratic health of a society:

1. Interpretation of symptoms (a critical appraisal of the symptoms of the democracy – e.g. addiction to foreign oil, exclusion of out-group).
2. Working through the fantasy – by going through we must show how the fantasy is non-substantial that it merely circles around an object that will never be fulfilled (the work of democracy – putting democracy to work, protesting, agitating, and political mobilization).

Lacan answered the problem as to how we go beyond the persistence of a symptom through the use of the sinthome, or the signifier bearing jouissance. Sinthome is the way that we as subjects avoid madness; it is how we bind our enjoyment to a signifying chain, or a symbolic function that assures a certain consistency to our being in the world. In all psychoanalysis and in the work of democracy, you must identify yourself with the place where the symptom already was – you must see in this struggle the eternal recurrence of other struggles – the civil rights struggle in the anti-Muslim and Islamaphobia struggles, and the homophobia and anti-gay rights struggles. While the antagonisms are empirically different, the symptoms persist and are the fantasies that sustain them are traversed in similar ways.

2 responses

  1. Kaisa Azriouli

    Having read the conclusive functions based on Lacanian observational thinking I started to ask myself whether there are any statistical data around the effects gained by the democratic development having its roots in psychoanalysis itself.

  2. B.L.H. Aultman

    I would have liked to see you flesh out Lacan’s admonition that the signifier signifies nothing–as it seem to be doing most of the work in your argument. Identity is an impossible-to-reach limit because of restrictions inherent in the symbolic universe. This is what confronts the subject, no? No doubt Swedlow’s “recent” work against the personification of democracy is relevant here, as well as Stavrakakis’s treatise on relating Lacan to the political (more a helpful reader than a work of pure, independent scholarship). Thank you for this. It was helpful.

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